SOUTH KOREA: The Handmaiden (아가씨, 2016)

The Cultural Importance of Parallelism in The Handmaiden

by Sarina Govindaiah

Please watch the video essay and then read the crafter statement. Thank you.

When a person thinks about a book to screen adaptation, The Handmaiden is not one that typically comes to mind. Directed by Park Chan-wook, this illustrious South Korean film, an adaptation of the Welsh novel Goldfinger by Sarah Waters, chronicles the love story between two women, a Lady and her handmaiden, during the Japanese imperialist rule of South Korea. What allows The Handmaiden to stand out amongst the wide variety of film from South Korea is the storytelling method, wherein the audience sees only the handmaid Sook-hee’s perspective in part one until the turning point, and then recounts the same events from the perspective of the Lady Hideko.

South Korea spent many years under oppressive rule and intense media suppression from both before and after independence (Doherty). Throughout this time, many rebellions and anti-government movements led by students were put down by authority figures. These anti-government perspectives were continuously overlooked and suppressed buried for decades (Doherty). So when democracy and freedom came to South Korea in the late 1980s, there was a flood of diverse media from the younger generation.

In The Handmaiden, the audience observes half of the main sapphic couple’s relationship at a time, leading both the character being followed and the audience watching to only see certain perspectives. Some scenes from one viewpoint are longer than they are from the other, showing that one woman thought about the scene more than the other. There are many points within the film where Sook-hee does not understand the full context behind what she is seeing. However, by the time end of following Lady Hideko, the audience has a fuller understanding of all the characters around them and of the reason behind the actions only partially seen before. After so long spent under harsh rule, it is unsurprising that South Korean director Park Chan-wook tells the story like this. Just as Hideko is suppressed by her abusive uncle, the South Korean population was suppressed by regimes. For too long different perspectives were overlooked, so a film wanting to show the nuances of multiple ones is unsurprising.

In order to show the value of different perspectives in The Handmaiden I decided to contrast the parallel shots within the film. Because of the storytelling framework, many shots appear twice. This, however, is with a twist. Some of the shots last longer in different perspectives, some have voiceover or more audio, and many start and stop at different points. This is why I decided to overlap the matching lines of dialogue. This required me to find the clips, and then cut and move certain ones so everything is consistent. This is why some portions are continuous while the other half of the screen cuts in and out. No clip, save for one for length purposes, is missing footage. They are instead split so the audios line up. The black screens contrasting with visuals from one viewpoint during sections of no parallelism demonstrates the emphasis, or lack thereof, a character puts on that part. For example, in the bathtub scene one perspective is cut off before we see Sook-hee get in the tub. However, in a different perspective we see her undress to join Lady Hideko. In The Handmaiden, the slight differences, both visually and audio-wise, are what allows for a more holistic approach to the characters within the film. It is what makes the protagonists strong characters and ultimately, sympathetic to the audience.

South Korean cinema is also widely known for the way its films genre switch. The most successful films to break out of the country utilize a mix of multiple different genres and their tropes (Utin). Part of the reason for this is because South Korea actively funds these films. In order to stand out amongst the wide variety of international cinema, South Korea has created this distinguishing factor (Utin) which also showing the versatility present within their industry. This is also because the South Korean government chooses what films to fund, and therefore controls how people view their cinema (Deshpande and Mazaj). This has led to the country have a sort of standard in the films they show. The Handmaiden exemplifies this perfectly. On the surface level it appears as a romantic film. However, upon watching, the viewer realizes that this is also a thriller, period drama, revenge piece with social commentary and discourse threaded throughout. This is part of the reason why it stands out from other films in different countries, but also South Korea, and received as much government funding as it did.

This film is a break from convention in “standard film”. As an erotica sapphic film which critiques the upper class and tradition is very progressive in its beliefs. The rich are portrayed as voyeuristic and awful to those they look down on, subverting typical portrayals (Wagner). By Sook-hee and Hideko actively fighting the patriarchy inherently present within the traditional upper-class, this film criticizes the extravagance of the upper class.

The renaissance of South Korean cinema, roughly beginning in 1997, is still in motion even today. From suppression to worldwide fame, the film industry of South Korea is one of the largest, most respected in the world. The critical and commercial success of the 2016 film The Handmaiden reflects many of the beliefs present within South Korean society today. This film was a gateway to a larger, overall respect for the country as a film producing entity. As a critique on many dominant themes, such as classism, this film shows that subversive film can still reach widespread success. It was also a stepping stone for future South Korean projects, such as the Oscar winning best picture film Parasite (dir. Bong Joon-ho). Park Chan-wook’s masterpiece The Handmaiden shows that South Korea is here to stay as a large film industry and it is exciting to see where else the film of that country is going to go next.

Work Cited

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